The Save Darfur coalition’s vital statistics

by Conor Foley on August 12, 2009

a) 16: b) 35,000: c) 400,000: d) 7.5 million: e) 0

The first figure is the number of fatalities in Darfur for the month of June of this year – the most recent date for which they are available – and is taken from Alex de Waal’s widely-respected Making Sense of Darfur blog.   This notes that 12 of the deaths were ‘probably criminal in nature’ while the remaining four were related to the ongoing political crisis.  This is the lowest monthly total since the start of the crisis and brings the total number of violent deaths in the Darfur region to perhaps 600 so far this year.  For the first nine months of last year, it is estimated that there were around 1,211 deaths of whom around 496 were civilians.

This is way down on the death toll at the height of the conflict in 2003/2004 when the International Criminal Court estimates that around 35,000 people were killed during the government’s counter-insurgency campaign, which is where the second figure comes from.

The third figure is the number of ‘innocent men, women and children [who] have been killed’ in Darfur according to a series of high-profile advertisements and press statements run by the Save Darfur Coalition in 2005 and 2006. This exaggerates the number of violent deaths in Darfur by more than ten-fold.  The adverts were criticised by the Advertising Standards Association and the coalition now use the figure 300,000 instead.  This is a UN guesstimate at the total number of people who have died both from the direct and indirect effects of the conflict.  It is based on the figure used by the main aid agencies during fund-raising appeals in 2005 – when they said that 200,000 lives had been lost – and a comment by a UN official that this figure could now be half as high again.  From my extremely limited experience of counting displaced people and/or dead bodies during refugee crises, I would say that the 200,000 figure was about right when the agencies were using it.  This was half the number claimed by the coalition at the time and the wording of their adverts – which implied the deaths were a result of physical acts of violence was clearly misleading.

Although the 400,000 figure really is not credible at any level – and not even the coalition uses it any more – it has been embedded in the minds of many commentators on the crisis.  For example, it was cited in a Special Report on the Arab world by the usually scrupulous Economist a couple of weeks ago, which also claimed that just over 100,000 people had been killed in Iraq over the same time period.

The fourth figure is the number of dollars that the Save Darfur coalition raised in funds in 2008 and the final figure is the amount that they have spent in Darfur providing aid to the suffering people there. 

Now I know that the coalition makes clear that it is an advocacy and not an aid organisation.  I also know that there are political reasons why some people want to overstate the death toll in Darfur and under-state it in Iraq.  But there is something else even more basic about those figures which I find problematic. 

My book, The Thin Blue Line, is about some of the problems currently confronting the ‘humanitarian aid industry’ and the inter-relationship politics, human rights and international interventions.  Crudely put, the ‘business’ of humanitarian aid is to alert (mainly western) public opinion about crises, persuade them to give money to organisations seeking to alleviate the suffering and then deliver this in the form of aid.  The more dramatic you can make the crisis appear, the more effective your fundraising efforts are likely to be.  But if you screw up the delivery element, people are less likely to trust you with their money in the future.  That is the basic business model and I am rather sceptical about notions such as ‘humanitarian accountability’ and ‘rights-based programming’ which are currently much in vogue.

Like all industries, the humanitarian aid business is a competitive one.  Organisations vie for visibility during deliveries and try to make their fund-raising appeals as dramatic and conscience-stirring as possible.  The fact that the business is connected to the alleviation of suffering locates us within a certain moral framework, however, and aid workers spend a large amount of time agonizing over whether we are actually helping people as much as we could and how we could do things better.  I do not see that as incompatible with a business model and one of my more recent projects was to participate in a study looking at what we can learn from the private sector when it comes to encouraging innovation in the humanitarian field.

But it is the disconnection from an actual humanitarian objective that I find objectionable in the efforts of the Save Darfur coalition.   Perhaps some of those involved are genuinely altruistic and perhaps what they have done was inadvertent, but it is difficult to regard the outcome of what they have created as anything but immoral.

In his book, Saviours and Survivors, Professor Mahmood Mamdani, notes that the coalition, which he says has an annual budget of approximately $14 million, grew from a movement of college students into what is essentially an advertising campaign.  He claims that for a short period, the president of the ad agency that the coalition hired also served as its director, which sounds like an incredible conflict of interest.

Presumably large numbers of people have made donations to the coalition under the impression that this would be used to help the people of Darfur, money which they may otherwise have donated to other agencies who actually have programs in the region.  The aid agencies are hampered by the fact that they have to spend some of the money that they raise actually helping people and, since they have (or rather had) staff on the ground they have to base their messages on the complex and nuanced reality that actually exists. 

Unencumbered by such restrictions, for the last five years the Save Darfur coalition has been pumping out a message about an ongoing genocide which is essentially untrue.  By massively inflating the real death toll and offering what seems to be the most ‘common sense’ solution – send in western troops – it has put all the other humanitarian agencies and human rights groups at a massive disadvantage when it came to fundraising and ensured that it is its own message that has dominated the debate.  It is accountable to no one, it helps no one and it has created a self-perpetuating circle, which in any other industry could get its organisers prosecuted for fraud.

I will be blogging a bit more about more general humanitarian topics over the next week or so and will introduce myself properly in the next few days, but I thought that I would flag this issue up now so that we can discuss it as we go along.



john b 08.12.09 at 10:43 pm

Don’t take this as a rallying cry for Western imperialism or anything: but 14 murders in a month from a population of 6 million (I know that Darfur’s population is a long way from known to any sensible degree, but that seems to be the closest available consensus) puts it at the same murder rate per capita as London, or a fraction of that of Baltimore or DC at their worst.

Either things have become really quite *astonishingly* good for somewhere with Darfur’s history, the population has fallen by a vast multiple higher than expected, or the starting point for the piece is a bit dubious.

Again, I’m not slating the point of the article: if the correct number were 140 then that would make your overall point very effectively. But dodgy stats don’t help anyone…


dsquared 08.12.09 at 10:59 pm

John – these are “confirmed fatalities”. In the UK and USA there isn’t an issue of underreporting of murder but in Darfur I’d imagine you’d see the typical wedge between reported and crime-survey figures. Using the Les Roberts rule of thumb that passive counts underestimate by a factor of 6 to 10 would project a murder rate equal to about the average for East Africa. Much, seemingly quite intelligent, discussion of this in the comments at Alex de Waal’s blog


john b 08.12.09 at 11:57 pm

Also very civilised discussion, which I should’ve looked at in the first place. Dr Coebergh’s comments are especially interesting.

Even so, using the “16” figure for a general audience without caveat is (inverse?) sensationalism which undermines the rest of the piece.


soru 08.13.09 at 12:18 am

The most relevant, although impossibly hard-to-answer, question is what the mortality rate would be now if the Save Darfur coalition had never came into being.

Opposed humanitarian military intervention is pretty clearly a bad idea. If you have a declared war aim of ‘save net lives’, then given appropriate high-tech weaponry that might in principle be achievable .

If you were the only actor.

Given an enemy who wants to stop you being seen as achieving that aim, then you probably couldn’t make things easier for them. Even with small numbers and low funding, they can hit soft targets, fan the flames of secondary conflict, destroy infrastructure. The graphs will go up not down, and pretty soon all the foreign troops and their high-tech hardware will be boarding the next transport plane out of the country.

But it’s not so clear that the threat of a stupid move can’t have beneficial consequences.


Donald Johnson 08.13.09 at 12:36 am

Anyone want to comment on Nicholas Kristof’s article on Darfur from the New York Review?–


I’ll start–it’s rather nasty to Mamdani, implying that he’s an apologist for Rwandan killers and one of those folks always blaming imperialism for Africa’s problems, though maybe Mamdani was nasty towards him. Mamdani replies in the more recent issue.

It’s always fun to see pundits behaving badly, but that aside , the article endorses the genocide view. What I remember about one of Kristof’s columns was his claim that the genocide in Darfur was worse than the much larger scale catastrophe in the Congo, because the Darfur deaths were from “genocide” and the ten times larger (I think that was his ratio) death toll in the Congo was not. The ethics of this seemed dubious to me.


Donald Johnson 08.13.09 at 12:40 am

The Kristof column saying Darfur is more worthy of concern compared to the Congo–


I should probably say for those who don’t read the NYT that Kristof has been one of the people most responsible for publicizing what’s been happening in Darfur, at least for NYT readers, which is why I’m bringing him into this.


Peter 08.13.09 at 2:05 am

Giving money to the Save Darfur Coalition might not actually help the people in Darfur, but it makes the SWPL’s who contribute the money feel better about themselves. Consider it a form of psychotherapy.


Ed 08.13.09 at 3:00 am

Given that the murder rate in Darfur is lower than in some American cities, if I started a “Save Darfur from the Save Darfur Coalition”, how much money would I stand to make?


El Cid 08.13.09 at 3:03 am

No one much cares, but Colombia has what is usually pinned as the 2nd largest population of internally displaced people, up to 3.1 million people, only some of whom are fleeing zones of active warfare conflict, many of whom are driven from their lands by paramilitaries working with large landholders. Because they tend to flee into towns and cities, they’re less visible, and more often in a better situation than the completely desperate Darfuri etc refugees, but still they are absolutely impoverished people who have just been thrown off of their land and are attempting to survive on the edge of Colombian society. Maybe for these nuanced reasons, or perhaps because Colombia’s conservative government is a close U.S. ally, no one much cares.


J. Otto Pohl 08.13.09 at 4:01 am

I think Sudan gets coverage because the government is Arab and Muslim not because people in the US care about the people of Darfur who are also Muslim. There is an attempt to portray the conflict in Darfur as Arab genocide against Blacks and use that as way of arguing that all Arabs and Muslims are racist and genocidal. This is why many of the same people who championed Israel’s massacre in Gaza are those making the most noise about Sudan. If the figures given in the post are correct then the conflict in Chechnya involved a lot more violent deaths of Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims then “Arabs” killing “Blacks” in Darfur. Yet precisely because the Chechens are Muslim and the Russians are not, almost nobody in the US cared at all.


musical mountaineer 08.13.09 at 4:20 am

By your account, Save Darfur is a dishonest organization. And it’s usually safe to presume that an agenda is bad, if its proponents feel compelled to lie. I’m open to the notion that Save Darfur is far more interested in keeping its own money flowing than in actually saving Darfur. Advocacy groups pretty much all eventually work their way into a similar position.

But suppose they got what they say they want? Military intervention might well be a good thing. It’s hard to see how any humanitarian effort could succeed without a military component, if only to safeguard humanitarian workers and see to it that they can reach those most in need. But to judge from the review of your book, you would dispute this.

How do other humanitarian agencies and human rights groups expect to operate in Darfur? That’s not a rhetorical question. Presumably there are several approaches. What are they, and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses? How does a humanitarian agency coordinate its efforts with a military? In the case of Darfur, is there a specific group that has a stronger moral and practical claim to western support than the others?

Sorry for the barrage of questions; I really am curious about this subject, and very interested in the global advance of human rights. As far as I know, human rights rarely advance without at least the threat of bloodshed.


dsquared 08.13.09 at 8:59 am

mm – there is a large UN/African Union military presence in Darfur, safeguarding the humanitarian agencies. It’s not as large as SDC want it to be, and it’s aimed at peacekeeping rather than regime change, but it’s there.


Hidari 08.13.09 at 10:43 am

‘ Military intervention might well be a good thing.’

As always the unasked questions.

1: Military intervention by whom? Why them? (Whoever ‘they’ might be).

2: Who pays for it?

3: What’s the plan? (I mean the 1 year, 2 year, 5 year, 10 year plan).

4 :What happens if the plan goes wrong, as it almost certainly will?

5: What’s the long term goal?

6: How does one justify spending the time and money in the Sudan that might be better spent elsewhere, where it might be possible to save more lives more effectively at less cost?


Conor Foley 08.13.09 at 11:42 am

Thanks for the comments.

I am going to leave the geopolitical issues about military intervention in Darfur to one side for now, because they have been debated fairly thoroughly, for so long, that I don’t see what I have to add right now.

The numbers point is interesting and I will return to it in a later point, maybe in relation to Brazil and Colombia.

Musical mounteer raises a number of really good points, which it will take a while to work through (and to which there are not always easy answers). It was a similar set of questions which made me write the book in the first place.

One point to stress. I think that most of the people who set up the Save Darfur Coalition probably did so for altruistic reasons (I don’t think that applies to everyone who has aligned themselves with their campaign and I take the point about the tendency of so many people in that camp to use incredibly nasty ad hominem attacks on those with whom they disagree). I think that they picked the number 400,000 knowing it was an absolute upper-end estimate and then used it in the most dramatic way possible because they thought that the ‘end justifies the means’. I would not say that it was necessarily a deliberate lie, but I do think it was heavily promoted with scant regard for the truth. What worries me, and that is the reason for starting with this piece here, is that it illustrates the most extreme point (and perhaps logical end progression) of a general trend in ‘humanitarian advocacy’.


Markus Nagler 08.13.09 at 1:29 pm

I know next to nothing about the conflict beyond a few news reports, but with that said:
– wikipedia sources indicate that in April 2008 the UN estimated 300,000 deaths , so the 400,000, while possibly wrong, is not as outrageous as your comparison to very recent numbers suggests.
– The Save Dafur Coalition is pretty transparent about being an advocacy group for intervention, not a humanitarian aid organisation. There’s nothing wrong with that and I think you’re going to far when you suggest “presumably large numbers of people gave money” under false assumptions. Absent evidence, that’s just a smear and even if it were true, I don’t see how it reflects negatively on the organisation if people can’t be bothered to read the wikipedia page or the About page of the Coalition before sending money.
Also, it is in fact quite open to debate whether pressure on governments is or is not a more efficient way to help.

That said I’m grateful for the report and a less biased, more factual version of it should run in major newspapers.


Donald Johnson 08.13.09 at 3:35 pm

J Otto Pohl–

I hadn’t thought about Chechnya in this context, but that’s a good point. And normally, since Russia is back on the list of countries we dislike, you’d expect a great amount of attention to any examples of their brutality ,as in the denunciations about Georgia last year or what was always said about their Afghanistan invasion, but in the post 9/11 Islamophobic environment, I think you’re right.


Peter 08.13.09 at 3:44 pm

No one much cares, but Colombia has what is usually pinned as the 2nd largest population of internally displaced people, up to 3.1 million people, only some of whom are fleeing zones of active warfare conflict, many of whom are driven from their lands by paramilitaries working with large landholders. Because they tend to flee into towns and cities, they’re less visible, and more often in a better situation than the completely desperate Darfuri etc refugees, but still they are absolutely impoverished people who have just been thrown off of their land and are attempting to survive on the edge of Colombian society. Maybe for these nuanced reasons, or perhaps because Colombia’s conservative government is a close U.S. ally, no one much cares.

Colombia isn’t a Muslim country and therefore no one cares. It’s all a matter of panty piddling paranoia. We are convinced – convinced! – that Islam is going to Conquer the World and haul us off to the ovens (they’ve already conquered Eurabia, though they haven’t gotten around to firing up the ovens), so everything that happens in the non-Islamic world is utterly ignored.

It’s funny, just eight years ago, Americans laughed at the very idea of Muslim military prowess (“Did you hear about the new Arab army tank? In addition to four reverse gears it has one forward gear … in case of an attack from the rear.”) Today we think they’re the world’s deadliest and most effective fighting force.


bubby 08.13.09 at 3:55 pm

Hi Conor

I notice that for some time you have been arguing that the ‘Save Darfur’ coalition has been exaggerating the Darfur mortality figures. I’m sure you are right since it chimes with what I have been told by a friend who has worked for MSF in Darfur. However you always seem a little reticient in providing an explanation as to why this group should be putting out misleading information.

I haven’t read Madami’s book so is there any possibility that yourself or anyone else could provide a briefish explanation for why the ‘Save Darfur’ is seeking to hoodwink the public?


mcd 08.13.09 at 4:50 pm


One possible answer is in William Engdahl’s “Century of War”.

Oil in Darfur- lots of it, with China and the US competing for access to it.


Conor Foley 08.13.09 at 5:14 pm

I think that there are three different discussions that have taken place about Darfur in recent years.

The first one is what to actually do about the crisis. In a sense that discussion is almost over. If there was a case for a military ‘humanitarian intervention’ then the time for that was in 2003/2004 when the crisis was at its height. There were two reasons why such an intervention was not a practical option. The first was because the US had just managed to get a deal between north and south Sudan, to end that conflict, and so was prioritising diplomacy in the region. The second was that the western troops who would have been doing the intervening were busy invading Iraq. The aftermath of that invasion pretty much took the option of western military intervention off the table and so I never understood why quite so much time was spent debating it (the articles I wrote in 2006/2007 were mainly about issues like establishing a no-fly zone or threatening military invasion – both of which I thought were a terrible idea because they would combine the worst of both options). The conflict will end with peace talks.

The second narrative – which I really can’t be bothered discussing – is a really weird one which goes along the lines of ‘how come lefties spend all their time condemning Israel but remain silent about the genocide in Darfur’. See Carlo Strenger here for a typically nasty and ranty illustration of the genre.

The third one is more the point of the post above, which I would describe as well-intentioned projectionism. In a strange sort of way people want their to be a genocide in Darfur so that they can campaign against it.

That might seem a bit harsh – and I am using the coalition to make a wider point about the problem of ‘humanitarian advocacy’. If you are an aid agency then you have to raise money – and most do it from public appeals. The more dramatic and emotive the appeal the better, and it would be fair to say that no involved in this area of work is knowingly likely to understate the nature of a crisis. They would probably justify this to themselves by asking what is wrong with making people care too much about human suffering or donating money that can be used for a worthy cause.

Human rights groups by contrast are far more cautious in making claims. At Amnesty we were taught that if we wrote a report based on an interview with someone who had been tortured we could only say ‘it is alleged’ unless we could find independent corroboration for the claims being made. The problem that I have with the SDC is that they are using the metodology of the humanitarian groups, when they should be using that of the human rights groups. Because their only ‘product’ is advocacy they should be held to higher standards if this is so sloppy and ill-thought out.

Bubby: no I don’t think that the SDC are fiendish.

Markus: I have not looked at Wikipedia for a while, but the chronology here is important. The conflict began in 2003 and peaked in 2004. Colin Powell labelled the killings genocide that autumn and a UN Commission of Inquiry was established about the same time. This reported in early 2005, documenting many of the atrocities that had taken place, but rejecting the claim that this amounted to genocide, and noting that the Sudanese Government claimed that less than 10,000 people had been killed, while the rebel groups claimed that the total was 70,000. These figures referred to violent deaths. At around the same time most aid groups were estimating the direct and indirect deaths to be at around 200,000.

The SDC then put out a series of statements in response that spring saying that the number of deaths was 400,000. These figures were then used by journalists such as Nick Cohen in Britain, to accuse the UN of collusion in genocide and to attack the aid agencies for allegedly covering up the scale of the killings. The SDC have now stopped using this figure and now use the UN guesstimate. My understanding is that this figure comes from a single quote from a UN official who was speaking pretty much off the top of his head. If there is a more scientific source for it, I would be interested to hear. Off the top of my head, I would say that it sounds accurate, but that does not explain why SDC have spent the last four years campaigning against an ‘ongoing genocide in Darfur’ when there clearly isn’t one (if we are using the word in anything like its generally accepted meaning).

What I find worrying is that while the SDC’s efforts make no sense from a humanitarian perspective (they are not helping anyone) or a political perspective (at almost every stage the things that they have called for were almost bound to make the situation worse), as an advertising and brand-recognition campaign it is difficult to fault them. In that sense they could be a model for the future.


Conor Foley 08.13.09 at 5:16 pm

mcd: just for the record, I don’t find that convincing. It might explain China’s behaviour, but not the US’s.


bubby 08.13.09 at 6:44 pm

Thanks Conor. I didn’t say that I thought the SDC was fiendish or that you thought they were fiendish but I can’t help feeling that there’s more to this campaign than purely humanitarian concerns.

It is comprised of a strange grouping of organisations, and has picked up backing from some very questionable people. It seems obsessed with Western military action as the sole solution to the problem.

Add this to the strange fixation with the Muslim/Arab angle of the conflict and it all begins to look very, very odd.

I appreciate that you prefer to stick to the established facts of the case and avoid conjecture or conspiracy theorizing, but surely you must have some suspicions as to the potential ulterior motives of the SDC.


Henri Vieuxtemps 08.13.09 at 7:16 pm

So, it would be wrong to call it a “neocon charade”?


Kara 08.13.09 at 8:59 pm

I appreciate this post, as it is difficult to criticize so-called humanitarian organizations, particularly those involved in Darfur, without being accused of many things.
I used to be a supporter of the Save Darfur coalition, as they provide tools for educating people about what is occuring there, as well as advocating for western intervention. However, by using inflammatory words such as “genocide,” and inflating death/displacement numbers, they only appeal to the emotions of listeners. I grew disenchanted with the entire Darfur “movement” when it seemed to be more about “selling” the numbers to people, instead of eliminating the conflict.


Conor Foley 08.13.09 at 9:06 pm

Bubby and Henri: I am not sure, and in some ways I think that is the least interesting question.

There is broad spread of liberal opinion who care about issues like human rights and international justice and are moved by images of suffering in far off places. There are also some people who take much more ideological view of the world – on both the left and right – and it is often noted that many of today’s neocons are former Trotskyists (as I know because I have encountered them in both incarnations). Perhaps the SDC is just a neocon front – I really don’t know – but my guess is that most of its activists belong to the former group.

I find the thesis that the SDC was softening up public opinion for a western invasion of Darfur so that Bush could grab its oil about as convincing as the view that the US invaded Afghanistan to build a pipeline across it (I realise that no one here has advanced either theory).

My charge against them is a different one. I think that the SDC is the most extreme current example of what I describe as ‘political humanitarianism’ in my book – and my concerns are well summarized in the Michael Williams review that Henry posted. I will be giving some other examples of the same problem in subsequent pieces, but I am not, and never have, argued against the principle of humanitarian interventions in all circumstances. I believe in the universality of international human rights standards – but that some rights will obviously be interpreted differently in different societies for a whole range of cultural, economic and historical reasons – and that that governments should be held accountable for how they treat people within their jurisdiction. I also believe that there are certain circumstances where external military interventions in a country may be justified on humanitarian grounds.

It is the detail of these discussions: the why, when, where, how and whether that is more useful and interesting to discuss.


Amelia 08.13.09 at 10:29 pm

Save Darfur aren’t the only ones. Nick Kristof (getting his numbers, IIRC, from the International Crisis Group) claimed that 75% of women in Liberia were raped during the civil war there. Completely false. The commonly cited statistic “5 million” about deaths in the DRC, also probably false. Yet these are the “magic numbers” people know (“know”) and repeat.

I think the real issue is that very, very few people have incentives to get the numbers right. In fact, most people benefit from keeping things vague and contentious. Parties that violate human rights get to claim things aren’t so bad. As you note, advocates whose job is to market crisis get to claim things are the worst they’ve ever been. And academics (e.g., me, a political scientist) who want to keep churning out content don’t necessarily have to verify that their datasets bear any particular relation to reality. Every dataset claims to be complete (or at least representative), and literally none of them actually are (unless by accident), and to some extent that’s how everyone likes things.

There are demographic methods for checking out the boneheaded extrapolations and the undercounts, but due to the incentives problem it seems that very few non-demographers are interested in using them. The costs (lots of statistics, more than the usual amount of time for analysis, having to publicly acknowledge uncertainty in the form of a confidence interval) definitely outweigh the benefits for most groups.

…All of which is both to say “Yes, you’re absolutely right about the problems with SD’s business model” and “Try not to make the same mistake they did” — namely, deciding on numbers before the evidence is in. It’s certainly true that Darfur is well-monitored now, and that violence is down. But “16,” like “35,000” and “400,000”, isn’t a real estimate. There’s no confidence interval attached, and no serious attempt to quantify the rate of underreporting. de Waal suggests that the “good fit” (high overlap) between the two recent Darfur data sources suggests that the vast majority of cases are being counted, and on the assumption that there aren’t areas of near-total reporting failure, I’d bet he’s correct. But still: let’s not turn the lower numbers into “magic numbers,” too.


Kathleen Lowrey 08.13.09 at 10:35 pm

Conor Foley:

“In a strange sort of way people want their to be a genocide in Darfur so that they can campaign against it.”

I’m wondering if you have anything to say along these lines about the Western response to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia? I haven’t read your book, obviously — perhaps you already have said something.


Donald Johnson 08.14.09 at 12:51 am

There’s also the problem that if a genocide turns out to be real and more or less as bad as claimed, anyone who expressed the least amount of skepticism or pointed out the rather tentative nature of the evidence at a given point of time will be forever after tarred as an apologist for genocide (see Chomsky, Noam). It’s a game everyone plays. I blame Orwell –not that Orwell wasn’t making a legitimate point about how people deny atrocities for ideological reasons, but now everyone is scared to death to express doubt about the high estimates, at least if they are in reference to a genocide perpetrated by the fashionable bad guys.


Donald Johnson 08.14.09 at 12:53 am

“now everyone is scared to death to express doubt about the high estimates, at least if they are in reference to a genocide perpetrated by the fashionable bad guys.”

Though obviously that doesn’t apply if the slaughter in question is our fault, or the fault of one of our allies. Then the rule reverses. (See Lancet papers).


musical mountaineer 08.14.09 at 5:20 am

Musical mounteer raises a number of really good points…

That’s kind of you. Since you’re new here, I should tell you that I’m a bit of a right-wing troglodyte, and among these academic progressives I am as Jane Goodall among the apes (or an ape among the Jane Goodalls, if you prefer).

…which it will take a while to work through (and to which there are not always easy answers). It was a similar set of questions which made me write the book in the first place.

I kind of figured that. I ought to read the book. But in the meantime I’ll tune in here and see what I can see.

Thanks for the assist, dsquared.


ajay 08.14.09 at 9:00 am

This post is, frankly, somewhat slippery when it comes to reasoning.

Some examples: yes, SDC hasn’t given any money “providing aid to the suffering people there”, but, as CF admits in the next paragraph, that was never their objective. SDC never said it was collecting money for humanitarian aid. So why cite this irrelevant figure? SDC hasn’t given one red cent to help fund infant vaccination programmes in Nigeria either. Is that any more relevant? Looks like a smear, to be honest.

Second example: blurred reasoning. In 2005-6 SDC said that 400,000 people had been killed; then they revised that down to 300,000. How does that lead to the conclusion that since 2004 “the Save Darfur coalition has been pumping out a message about an ongoing genocide which is essentially untrue”?

Then there’s the not-quite-accusation of fraud – “Presumably large numbers of people have made donations to the coalition under the impression that this would be used to help the people of Darfur, money which they may otherwise have donated to other agencies who actually have programs in the region.”

Presumably? Well, “presumably” you should be able to find a SDC donor who gave under that misapprehension.

And, finally, let’s please not get into the business of “these deaths shouldn’t be counted, because they didn’t actually die from violence, they died from hunger and disease”. That’s very, very nasty reasoning. We could revise down the death tolls of some real genocides by using that sort of logic, and some pretty unpleasant people have actually tried to do so.


Daniel 08.14.09 at 9:21 am

How does that lead to the conclusion that since 2004 “the Save Darfur coalition has been pumping out a message about an ongoing genocide which is essentially untrue”?

because they keep saying that it’s an “ongoing” genocide when it isn’t. Also, while the distinction between violence and other causes is “nasty reasoning”, it’s very relevant to the political aims of SDC because, quite self-evidently, an all-out war in Sudan caused by a humanitarian intervention would create much larger numbers of refugees and IDPs and therefore many more such fatalities (also, the rebel groups bear a lot more responsibility for the IDP problem than they do for the deaths by violence).


Daniel 08.14.09 at 9:23 am

Well, “presumably” you should be able to find a SDC donor who gave under that misapprehension

We got confused by this ourselves in 2006; Eszter thought that the proceeds from the “Darfur Wall” website were going to relief organisations when half of them were going to SDC and Eric Reeves.


Henri Vieuxtemps 08.14.09 at 9:35 am

To stem off these unfair attacks, why wouldn’t they rename it to Bomb Sudan Coalition?


John Quiggin 08.14.09 at 10:52 am

Not sure if anyone else is having this problem (i’m on a very flaky connection), but I can’t read the comments. Anyway, an excellent and thoughtprovoking post.


John Quiggin 08.14.09 at 10:59 am

OK, posting a comment fixed my problem.


Conor Foley 08.14.09 at 12:02 pm

Ajay: I will pick up your comments in a subsequent post, but yes, I have received a couple of emails who donated money to the SDC under the impression that it would be spent in Darfur. This was not an unreasonable impression given the wording of the adverts and it was one of the complaints levelled against the coalition by the aid agencies which forced the resignation of the SDC’s first director (and this led to the period in which they were managed by their own ad company according to Mamdani).


roy belmont 08.14.09 at 8:31 pm

Possibly some clarification would result if the motives of the SDC prime-movers were made plain. Their pre-existing biases, prior excitements and affinities etc.
It’s pretty obvious the index of suffering among the actual residents of actual Darfur isn’t all that important to the actual Save Darfur campaign. So what is important to them? Who are they, and what do they want?
Oh, and oil. Is there any oil there?


dan k 08.14.09 at 8:38 pm

Can’t believe this topic hasn’t sparked discussion yet. I am looking forward to hearing your followup, especially since in your other post you say that NGOs should focus on “core competencies”. If Save Darfur is just an advocacy organization, then they should be evaluated by that threshold, but not taken to task for failing to become a relief organization as well…


Conor Foley 08.14.09 at 8:39 pm

‘Is there any oil there?’ yes, but I doubt if that is a significant factor for the SDC.


ajay 08.18.09 at 8:26 am

I have received a couple of emails who donated money to the SDC under the impression that it would be spent in Darfur

Oh, the lurkers support you in email!


Conor Foley 08.18.09 at 2:11 pm

ajay, I find superior-sounding sarcastic comments irritating and tend to respond in kind – which probably makes me sound nastier than I mean to.

No, I wrote a piece about this for the Guardian and received a couple of emails from completely sincere sounding people who had made donations to what they thought was a charity doing work in Darfur. They asked me if I could give them any information about the SDC and I referred the SDC to its website. I often receive those types of messages from people – often who are either working in the field themselves, have friends or relatives there, or just want to help because they are concerned about a particular humanitarian crisis.

People do sometimes post messages or send emails because they genuinely want information and not because they want to either score points or make themselves sound clever (and why they would want to do this while using pseudonyms is beyond me).


Salient 08.18.09 at 2:30 pm

SDC never said it was collecting money for humanitarian aid.

Admittedly, to someone like me who hasn’t paid any close attention to the SDC, if they’re not collecting money for humanitarian aid, then what in the hells is Save Darfur Coalition doing?

I thought they were, you know, a Coalition trying to Save people. In Darfur. By aiding them, presumably. I also assumed the aid they would try to provide would be humanitarian rather than, I dunno, mercenary.

And yes, I now know the answer to the what-in-the question above — but I wouldn’t have, frankly, if not for this post by Conor Foley. Expressing the desire to see the distinction between “aid” and “advocacy” highlighted whenever an aid or advocacy group is discussed, is reasonable. I don’t see why it matters whether or not anyone comes forward and admits they were stupid enough to give money to an organization without looking into what that organization does. Even pseudonymously, that’s asking for a lot.

But sure, I’ll bite. I gave $20 to the SDC without really looking into what they do. (Eh, it’s only $20. A bandanna-in-the-hair colleague who I respected and still respect asked me to contribute, so I did, without checking into it much — in the same way I usually buy a couple $1 candy bars from whoever it is whose kid is raising money for whatever. I don’t regret the donation. My attention is focused elsewhere, and I don’t have the time or the will to research every promising-sounding organization who asks me for a little money.)

OTOH, I agree with everything you say here completely: And, finally, let’s please not get into the business of “these deaths shouldn’t be counted, because they didn’t actually die from violence, they died from hunger and disease”. That’s very, very nasty reasoning. We could revise down the death tolls of some real genocides by using that sort of logic, and some pretty unpleasant people have actually tried to do so. Although I’m not sure Conor Foley did this himself, it’s an insistence worth emphasizing.


Ali 08.18.09 at 3:26 pm

I can’t read the other comments (the flying bat server may still be acting up), so excuse me if this repeats other posts.

It’s bad that the Save the Darfur Coalition uses numbers sloppily, but I’m not sure Foley is helpful either. In March of 2008, former U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland estimated that 400,000 had died as direct and indirect results of the fighting in Darfur. Foley gives us no substantial reason to doubt that number, only saying that his own very limited experience at counting such things suggests a lower number (200,000). Who’s right?

Foley also seems eager to distinguish between deaths due to violence and deaths due to displacement/starvation related to the fighting. But in discussing Sri Lanka in The Guardian recently, Foley rightly treated deaths from violence and deaths from displacement/starvation as equally damnable. Why is he at pains to distinguish them in the case of Darfur? Maybe this piece above gives a clue. It seems that he doesn’t like the Save the Darfur Coalition or the kind of work they do, and probably for good reasons (that they spend no money in Darfur is a shock). So he wants to prove their blurring of direct and indirect deaths wrong, perhaps because the coalition is soaking up donations now needed elsewhere. But I worry he’s letting his distaste and his eagerness to prove them wrong get in the way of direct analysis of Darfur and of the very real and serious humanitarian and political questions that it continues to raise. The post, in other words, seems to be an inter-humanitarian argument, rather than a post directly about Darfur.


Conor Foley 08.18.09 at 5:57 pm

Ali: I have never had any direct contact with the SDC and have no particular views about them as individuals. I am making the fairly obvious point that they have been campaigning to stop an ongoing genocide in Darfur when there isn’t one – and has not been a situation that could be remotely described as coming close to one for several years.

You cite a comment by Jan Egeland in March 2008 in which he said that the number of deaths have gone up since his initial estimate two years previously. But that is just commonsense. According to the report on MSNBC:

‘The last official, independent mortality survey for Darfur was released in March 2005 based on data collected by a team from the World Health Organization from 8,844 displaced people living in camps. It estimated that 10,000 people had died among the refugees each month between the end of 2003 and October 2004 — mostly of malnutrition and disease linked to the violence. Egeland said when he was interviewed at the end of 2005 “I just added the 10,000 we found that died per month in 2004. … I said well it’s 18 months, it’s 180,000.” A few months later he raised it to 200,000. “Then, the clock stopped ticking, sort of,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “You have the figure 200,000 people died in Darfur which has been used continuously since I gave it,” Egeland said. “Please stop using that figure. I gave it. It’s 2 1/2 years old. It’s wrong.”

So, even when the SDC asserted the figure (in early 2005) it was twice the number estimated by the aid agencies at the time. The figure would also only be going up by 10,000 a month if the humanitarian situation had remained unchanged since 2004 – and no one seriously believes that. One of the reasons why the humanitarian situation has improved is because the bulk of the fighting has stopped. Darfur is now officially categorised as a low-intensity conflict by the UN. The other reason is that aid is getting to the displaced people (the living conditions in the camps now compare favourably with the general living conditions in other parts of Sudan) and that is surely a tribute to the aid agencies.

So, if you wanted to do something to help the people of Darfur, would it be better to give money to aid organisations who were actually helping people and had tried to base their advocacy on the real humanitarian situation – or to those who shouted the loudest?


Ali 08.19.09 at 8:49 am

Conor: Thanks for the reply. But I still don’t really understand.

First: I agree with your criticism of SDC. I agree that money should be given to other aid agencies. I agree that the conflict in Sudan has improved.

But: I still can’t tell what how many people you think have died as an indirect result of the conflict there: 200,000 or 400,000. Even if it’s 200,000, the fact that the SDC exaggerates the number seems utterly unimportant compared with the fact that 200,000 people have died. And, as your posts about Sri Lanka seem to make clear, deaths as a result of displacement due to fighting are as damnable as deaths directly due to fighting. So why keep telling us the distinction is vital to make in the case of Sudan. SDC fuzzies up the distinction in order to raise money, but you treat it as an unimportant distinction yourself when discussing other conflicts. So is it an important moral distinction or an unimportant one? Similarly, you have written that the ICC should leave Bashir alone, not least because the conflict has subsided, but you have also argued that Sri Lanka’s leaders should be pursued indefinitely for their crimes. So, again, your posts about Darfur just seem odd–whatever the reasons, and however valid your criticism of SDC might be, you come across as minimizing atrocities in Darfur and declining to apply principles to Darfur that you are willing to apply in other cases. I guess I’m just trying to say that you should be able to criticize SDC without compromising your criticism of Bashir, but you leave the impression that you think the more you criticize SDC the less you should criticize Bashir et al. To someone on the margins of the relevant debates, your posts about Darfur just end up sounding like internecine disagreements among humanitarians who really ought to be ignoring each other to focus on the atrocities.


Conor Foley 08.19.09 at 12:59 pm

Ali: the ‘problem’ that I had with the SDC arose mainly out of a sense of puzzlement.

I was in Afghanistan in 2003/2004 when the conflict in Darfur was at its height and so we only had limited information about what was happening. A lot of of my friends went straight from there to Darfur and I caught up with them again in late 2006/2007 when I was deployed in Northern Uganda. It was what they told me that set me asking the questions that I have been posing over the last three years. Pretty much all the aid agencies and the UN agreed that the total death toll by mid-2005 was about 200,000 (from acts of violence and indirect causes). Then suddenly the SDC appeared claiming that twice as many people had been killed and implying that all of these deaths were from acts of violence. Many of them also said that we were covering up the true death toll for some reason (read Nick Cohen’s pieces, but many others as well) and supporting military intervention – which no sane observer could have thought was a possibility at the time.

I think that what happened was that some well-intentioned (and perhaps some not so well-intentioned) people got behind a campaign, which then took on its own momentum. What my post above questions is why – four years on – with everyone agreeing that Darfur is very far from being the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, is there still such a fixation on it?

On the ICC and war crimes investigations in Darfur and Sri Lanka, well the first issue is that the atrocities in Sri Lanka took place a few months, rather than several years ago. There has been a UN Commission of Inquiry into events in Darfur, which is all that I have called for in the case of Sri Lanka and Northern Sri Lanka remains a massive concern with respect to human rights violations and violations of the rules of armed conflict. Having said which, my post about Sri Lanka above does not suggest that there are any easy answers to the dilemmas facing humanitarian organisations.

On deaths from violence and indirect causes, using starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime in the same way as targeting civilians, so that is straight forward, but conflicts also lead to displacements of population which will also lead to excess deaths because large numbers of people get crammed together in camps where conditions are far from ideal. There is a distinction between these two types of deaths.

Similarly, there is also a distinction between the crime of genocide – as we understand it from the Holocaust, Rwanda and Srebenica – and other ‘less serious’ crimes. The question that I have posed about the ICC Prosecutor’s action was why did he choose to try and charge al-Bashir with that crime (which was not supported by the UN Commission of Inquiry or the judges at the pre-trial hearing) and why did he announce it on the day and in the way that he did (days after a damning industrial tribunal found against him in a case related to sexual misconduct)?


Joe's Keys 08.21.09 at 4:29 pm

I was in the press room the day that John Holmes first used the 300,000 figure. Even that seems likely an exaggeration of the conflict’s effect. First, he based it solely on an extrapolation of the earlier 200,000 dead figure, despite the fact that Darfur violence has plunged since the end of 2004. Holmes repeatedly caveated the increased figure by saying this, but the press ran with the bigger number anyway.

Second, as Prof. Mamdami pointed out on a visit to UN Headquarters, the UN’s figure encompasses all excess deaths including starvation and disease. The problem with this is that the climate in Darfur has been changing, and the southward migration of the desert and the lack of water are responsible for many of these deaths… and in fact, are largely the origin of the conflict itself. The brutal campaign by Khartoum and the janjaweed — what Andrew Natsios calls “counterinsurgency on the cheap” — are responsible for many of these deaths, but by no means all. Desertification and a population explosion in the Sahel are also prime culprits.

In short, the 300,000 figure is unlikely. The 400,000 figure is just silly. If there was a Darfur genocide, it ended in 2004, but unfortunately it’s not in Save Darfur’s financial interest to point this out.

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